Friday, November 26, 2010

A wrinkle in the high brow

In this week's "The New Yorker", James Wood has a "personal history" piece entitled "The Fun Stuff - My life as Keith Moon". That's James Wood the erudite literary critic, former chief literary critic of "The Guardian", former senior editor at "The New Republic", currently a visiting lecturer at Harvard and a staff writer of "The New Yorker".

Wood's usual essay style in reviewing books is to spend the first 1000 or so words on a tangent that is unclear until he actually mentions the book he's reviewing and then moves to the central points of his commentary. It's a compelling approach that respects the intelligence of his reader. The reviews are a mosaic that eventually pull themselves together, often in a rewarding way. That said, it was refreshing to see him start right in on this topic, detailing the parallel lives of his music education as a child and young man. On the one hand he was focused on classical music, playing piano and moving on to various horns as well as particating in choral training, singing daily in the cathedral choir. At the same time he secretly taught himself to play basic rock and rhythm and blues drums at a friend's house and played in a band in high school when his musical and academic studies allowed. His idol was Keith Moon, the wild man drummer of the Who.

This opening section reads easily. Within 500 words or so, however, Wood is describing the patterns of the rock and jazz drummer in trained music afficionado language, and the way in which Moon broke all of the rules and pulled it off in a way like no other(John Bonham of Led Zeppelin rates a distant second in Wood's mind but no one else comes close to either of them). The writing is precise and disciplined as one would expect in a Wood's essay. Then comes the following:

"A good dry snare, properly struck, is a bark, a crack, a report. How a drummer hits the snare, and how it sounds can determine a band's entire dynamic. Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part, because the snare is so drippy and mildly used(and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers' testicles)."

Didn't expect that. There is much to like in this essay. For Wood among many, Moon's death at age 31 and Bonham's two years later at age 33 were tragic and final as in "and then English drumming went quiet". Moon's famous comment that "I'm the best Keith Moon style drummer in the world" foretold this end but the Who soldiered on with the "little eunuch toms" of Moon's successor.


Blogger Frank Blau said...

Funny... I singled out that same quote about the snare drum in my facebook post about this article!

11:49 AM  

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